Before the Post Office Department issued its first postage stamps in 1847, letters were taken to a Post Office, where the postmaster would note the postage in the upper right corner. The postage rate was based on the number of sheets in the letter and the distance it would travel. Postage could be paid in advance by the writer, collected from the addressee on delivery, or paid partially in advance and partially upon delivery. If prepaid, postmasters marked “PAID” on the letter.
In 1837, Great Britain’s Sir Rowland Hill proposed uniform rates of postage for letters going anywhere in the British Isles and prepayment by using envelopes with preprinted postage or adhesive labels. The first postage stamps for mailing letters in the United Kingdom went on sale in May 1840. The stamp that became known as the Penny Black covered the one-penny charge for half-ounce letters, and the Two Penny Blue covered the two-penny charge for one-ounce letters. Because it went on sale first, the Penny Black is widely considered to be the world’s first postage stamp.
Alexander M. Greig’s City Despatch Post, a private New York City carrier, issued the first adhesive stamps in the United States on February 1, 1842. The Post Office Department bought Greig’s business that same year and continued use of the stamps for carrier service in New York City.
After U.S. postage rates were simplified in 1845, New York City Postmaster Robert Morris, among others, provided special stamps or markings to indicate prepayment of postage. These now are known as Postmasters’ Provisionals.
In 1847, Congress authorized United States postage stamps. The first general issue postage stamps went on sale in New York City, July 1, 1847. One, priced at five cents, depicted Benjamin Franklin. The other, a ten-cent stamp, pictured George Washington. Clerks used scissors to cut the stamps from pregummed, nonperforated sheets.
In 1855, the prepayment of letter postage became mandatory.
Beginning January 1, 1856, mailers were required to prepay postage using U.S. postage stamps.
The first printed stamped envelopes were issued July 1, 1853. They have always been produced by private contractors and sold at the cost of postage plus the cost of manufacture. With the exception of manila newspaper wrappers used from 1919 to 1934, watermarks have been mandatory for stamped-envelope paper since 1853. The watermarks usually changed with every four-year printing contract to help identify the envelope and paper manufacturers.
Austria issued the first postal card in 1869. The United States followed in May 1873. Postal cards, known today as stamped cards, are produced by the government and carry preprinted postage, unlike privately produced postcards, which do not bear postage. The 1873 Annual Report of the Postmaster General (on pages XXVI-XXVII) noted:
As predicted, they have been favorably received. They have supplied a public want, and have made a new and remunerative business for the Department.
Postal cards were sold at face value until January 10, 1999, when a charge for the cost of manufacture was added.
Commemorative stamps honor important people, events, or aspects of American culture, and tend to be larger in size than regular issues of stamps, which are called definitives.
In 1893, the first U.S. commemorative stamps, honoring that year’s World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, were issued. The subject — Columbus’s voyages to the New World — and size of the stamps were innovative. The stamps were 7/8 inches high by 1-11/32 inches wide, nearly double the size of previous stamps.
Over the years, commemorative stamps have been produced in many sizes and shapes, with the first triangular postage stamp issued in 1997 and the first round stamp in 2000. In 2017, the Postal Service issued its first stamps with special tactile features — the Have a Ball! stamps, printed with surface textures mimicking sports balls, and the Total Eclipse of the Sun stamp, printed with a heat-sensitive ink that, when touched, revealed an image of the moon.
The 29-cent Elvis Presley stamp, issued in 1993, has been the best-selling U.S. commemorative stamp to date.
Stamp booklets were first issued April 16, 1900. They contained 12, 24, or 48 two-cent stamps. Waxed paper was placed between sheets of stamps to keep them from sticking together. The books, which carried a one-cent premium until 1963, had light cardboard covers printed with information about postage rates.
The first coil (roll) stamps were issued on February 18, 1908, in response to business requests. Coils were also used in stamp vending equipment.
The Post Office Department began experimenting with stamp vending machines in 1905, but in 1911 concluded that none of the models tested were entirely satisfactory. Meanwhile, in the next few decades, privately owned machines proliferated. Drugstore models sold stamps at a profit by charging, for example, a nickel for two 2-cent stamps.
The Department began experimenting with stamp vending machines again after World War II, and rolled out its first model in 1948. By 1961, the Department had about 4,500 stamp vending machines in service; at the same time, about 400,000 privately owned machines were in use.
The first nondenominated stamps (stamps without a printed value) in the United States were two Christmas stamps issued October 14, 1975. The Postal Service had requested a rate change from 10 to 13 cents and was unsure when the Postal Rate Commission would issue a recommended decision in the case. When the rate change was delayed, the stamps were sold for 10 cents.
A similar situation led the Postal Service to issue nondenominated stamps on May 22, 1978. They bore the letter “A” rather than a denomination. Nondenominated stamps with letter designations through “H” were issued in conjunction with postage rate changes through 1998.
The Postal Service’s Quick Service Guide 604a, at https://pe.usps.com, lists nondenominated stamps and postal stationery issued since 1975, along with their postage values.
The 1974 Peace on Earth Christmas issue was the first self-adhesive postage stamp in the United States. It was issued experimentally, to see if the tightly bonded self-adhesive would reduce the fraudulent unsticking and reuse of stamps. Unfortunately, the first self-adhesives cost three to five times more to produce than regular postage stamps, they could still be peeled off envelopes and reused, and stamps in the hands of collectors started to self-destruct.
In 1989, the Postal Service again experimented with self-adhesive stamps, this time with emphasis on customer convenience. The new self-adhesives had a water-soluble adhesive and were produced on coated paper, so the effects of the adhesive would not be destructive.
Introduced nationwide in 1992, self-adhesive stamps quickly became popular with customers. By 2002, nearly all new U.S. commemorative stamp issues were self-adhesive.
On April 12, 2007, the Postal Service issued its first Forever stamp, a nondenominated, nonexpiring stamp intended for customers mailing a piece of First-Class Mail. Sold at the going rate of a First-Class stamp, a Forever stamp is always valid for the first ounce of First-Class postage. Forever stamps were initially intended to ease the transition during stamp price changes. From 2007 to October 2010, only one design was issued: the Liberty Bell Forever stamp.
Due to their popularity, in 2010 two additional designs were issued — Holiday Evergreens Forever stamps on October 21, and Lady Liberty and U.S. Flag Forever stamp coils on December 1.
Since 2011, all new commemorative stamps for the First-Class Mail one-ounce rate have been Forever stamps.
Since 2014, all new stamps for the First-Class Mail one-ounce rate have been Forever stamps.
In 2013, a Global Forever stamp was introduced, offering a single price for any First-Class Mail international one-ounce letter going to any country in the world — or for up to a two-ounce letter going to Canada. Beginning in 2015, Forever stamps were also issued for postcards, and for letters needing additional postage.
Semipostals are stamps on which the price exceeds the cost of postage, with the difference devoted to a particular cause. An act of Congress resulted in the Breast Cancer Research stamp, the first United States semipostal, on July 29, 1998, with proceeds above the cost of postage going to breast cancer research. Congress passed legislation extending the sale of the Breast Cancer Research stamp several times and it has been sold nearly continuously since it was first issued, raising more than $94 million through 2021.
Congress also directed the sale of the Heroes of 2001 semipostal stamp (2002–2004), and the Stop Family Violence semipostal (2003–2006), which raised more than $10.5 million and $3 million respectively. A fourth semipostal stamp — Save Vanishing Species — first sold in September 2011, raised more than $6.7 million through 2021.
The first four semipostals were mandated by Congress. The Semipostal Authorization Act of 2000 authorized the Postal Service to issue semipostals in support of causes considered to be in the national public interest. In November 2017, the Postal Service issued its first discretionary fundraising stamp, the Alzheimer’s semipostal. In 2019, the Postal Service issued its second discretionary semipostal, the Healing PTSD semipostal stamp. For more information, see https://about.usps.com/what/corporate-social-responsibility/activities/semipostals.htm.